Christian Cravo (Brazil). Salvador, Bahia, 2003, photographEXPAND
Christian Cravo (Brazil). Salvador, Bahia, 2003, photograph
© Christian Cravo/courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA

The Exhibit "Axé Bahia" Looks at South American Culture Through Afro-Brazilian Eyes

Think of the art that you surround yourself with. It often reflects a time, a place, a culture that feels familiar. It's in artistic production that we get a window into the artist's culture and life, or the symbols that we affiliate with our own upbringing.

For tourists, Salvador, Brazil, offers plenty to see. Anyone planning to visit the state of Bahia, especially, can read up about it on Frommer's and be assured that they’ll get their share of “two of Brazil’s greatest non-exportable products — sand and sunshine.”

And then there are the cultural phenomena that the United States loves to marvel over, like Capoeira and Carnaval. But beyond the tourist appeal, Bahia is an area that boasts a rich Afro-Brazilian culture. The Fowler Museum’s “Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis” looks to focus specifically on how this culture influences artists and art makers. As part of the "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" initiative, the exhibition will consist of more than 100 works from the mid–20th century to now. The challenge: Reflect the breadth and depth of artistic production in "Salvador, the capital of the coastal state of Bahia."

“The city, often simply referred to as Bahia, is the third largest metropolis in Brazil, with a population of 3 million, of whom nearly 80 percent claim some degree of African ancestry,” curator Patrick Polk says via email. “As a result, it is regarded by many in and outside of Brazil as the bastion of Afro-Brazilian culture. So we were faced with needing to put together a selection that can address incredibly complex Brazilian understandings of cultural heritage and racial identity related to the African Diaspora.”

Ayrson Heráclito (Brazil). O Sacudimento da Maison des Esclaves em Gorée (diptych detail), 2015. Natural pigment print on cotton paper.EXPAND
Ayrson Heráclito (Brazil). O Sacudimento da Maison des Esclaves em Gorée (diptych detail), 2015. Natural pigment print on cotton paper.
© Ayrson Heráclito/courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA

The curatorial team — Polk, Roberto Conduru, Sabrina Gledhill and Randal Johnson — decided to choose a range of artists, from iconic names like Mestre Didi, Carybé, Mário and Cravo Neto to artists who came after them, like José Antônio Cunha, Christian Cravo, and new-media artists like Àlex Ìgbó and Thiago Sant’Ana.

The show as a whole is meant to offer visitors a window into how “art in Bahia is shaped by and shapes Afro-Brazilian identities and experiences.” The word ‘axé’ comes from a Yoruba metaphysical concept, Polk explains.

“From an Afro-Brazilian perspective, it is conceptualized as the intangible energy or vital force that infuses life and carries the potential for positive change in the world. In common usage, it is also a blessing and a call for peace and calm,” Polk writes. As a concept, it “manifests most clearly in artistic and ritual practices.”

Lita Cerqueira (Brazil). Dança da Capoeira II/The Dance of Capoeira, 1976, photograph.EXPAND
Lita Cerqueira (Brazil). Dança da Capoeira II/The Dance of Capoeira, 1976, photograph.
© Lita Cerqueira/courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA

Lita Cerqueira’s photograph Dança da Capoeira II/The Dance of Capoeira from 1976 captures a dynamic scene of two figures in the midst of Capoeira. The viewer stands in the position of an onlooker, a part of the group watching the action happen. The scene takes place outside; a figure leans against a car with crossed arms, watching the scene with a slight smile. Cerqueira’s street photography includes many vignettes such as this one, capturing Afro-Brazilians in their day-to-day lives in a way that shows how Brazilian culture continue to thrive even after the horrors of slavery.

Polk emphasizes that the exhibition very clearly references “the enslavement of Africans in Brazil” as well as Afro-Brazilian religion. One of the pieces that most affected him was Sacudimento, a video diptych by Ayrson Heráclito, which “attempts to bring relief from the haunting legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave economy.”

In Candomblé, a religion with roots in Bahia that is widely practiced in Brazil, sacudimento is a practice meant to “sweep away negative energies from the bodies of adherents and restore their spiritual equilibrium.”

“Heráclito performs complimentary stylized cleansings or exorcisms at the infamous Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) at Gorée Island near Dakar, Senegal, and at the Casa de Torre in Bahia, formerly one of the richest plantations in the Brazilian colony,” writes Polk.

“Axé Bahia,” in this sense, captures important rituals in Afro-Brazilian culture but also chronicles how these intertwine themselves in art.

Ayrson Heráclito (Brazil). Bori – Oxum, 2008, photographEXPAND
Ayrson Heráclito (Brazil). Bori – Oxum, 2008, photograph
© Ayrson Heráclito/courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA

Each show in the "PST" initiative will focus on the theme of Los Angeles/Latin America. While “Axé Bahia” focuses a lot on Bahia, viewers will be able to find traces of a connection to our city in the show.

For starters, the curators tapped Bahia artist Eder Muniz to create a mural in L.A. “that dialogues with one already painted in Salvador as part of our project and another one to be included in the exhibition gallery at the Fowler Museum,” Polk says. The exhibition also references the history of cinema, particularly the links between Bahia and Hollywood. Visitors can see “footage from Carmen Miranda’s break-through Brazilian film, Banana da Terra, in which she premiered her legendary 'Baiana' costume.” The star’s image, after all, was “inspired by traditional, and empowering, styles of dress adopted by some Afro-Brazilian women (Baianas) in Bahia.”

The show is just another reminder that Latin America consists of so many different communities, many of which make up the distinct diversity of L.A. Art serves as just another way to bring to shed light on these rich histories.

“Axé Bahia: The Power of Art in an Afro-Brazilian Metropolis," UCLA's Fowler Museum, 308 Charles E. Young Drive, Westwood; Sept. 24-Feb. 11; free. pacificstandardtime.org.

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